In American politics, perception becomes reality


With the US Congressional midterm elections just months away, the crises are deepening for President Joe Biden and the Democratic Party.

Russia’s cold-blooded invasion of Ukraine has sparked a brutal clash between liberal democracies and illiberal authoritarianism. Sanctions against Russia and the economic fallout from the war are shaking global markets and fueling new inflation, which in the United States had already reached a high. 40 years tall in January.

Nationally, Biden’s signature legislative proposals on infrastructure, climate change and social spending have all collapsed because rogue members of the Democratic caucus refused their support. Meanwhile, Republican-controlled state legislatures have passed a flurry of voter suppression bills — 34 new laws in 19 states from December.

But if Democrats lose their majority in the House and Senate on Nov. 8, it could be mostly because Republicans are leveraging identity politics and polarizing social issues — perhaps nothing more than a spike in irregular movements that occur across the southern border of the United States.

Biden campaigned on a more humane approach to migration after four years of Trump’s tough policies; his election was undoubtedly a pull factor for many who have since attempted to reach America. This was reflected in US government data released last November showing that border agents had almost 1.7 million encounters with migrants attempting to cross the US-Mexico border in fiscal year 2021 – a record.

Moderate Democrats joined Republicans in sounding the alarm. Biden’s team ‘completely missed the jump’, Texas Democratic strategist Recount Politico last September, predicting that Democrats would pay a “massive” political price in the medium term.

But the question is much more complex than that.

Evidence suggests that irregular immigration across the US southern border has in fact in freefall since the 2000sThanks to massive expansion and militarization border security operations. The US Department of Homeland Security estimates the number of undetected illegal border crossings per year fell by 92% between 2000 and 2018.

Migration patterns culminating at the US southern border are also the product of dynamics beyond US control. They are the natural result of worsening regional conditions that convince Latin American families and individuals to march north in search of the American dream — no matter how eroded that ideal has been in recent years.

Central American countries are increasingly plagued by a demoralizing combination of gang violence and serious corruption, which stifles opportunities for social mobility and bleeds national institutions dry. More intense droughts, hurricanes and floods due to acceleration climate change is also making subsistence farming unsustainable in places like Honduras and Guatemala, whose economies – and countless families – depend on billions of dollars in remittances sent home by expatriates abroad.

Former drug traffickers in Colombia take advantage of political instability in Haiti and Venezuela by guiding hundreds of people a day through the infamous Darien Gap.

The dangerous 50 kilometer stretch of dense jungle swamps bordering Panama has always been a natural barrier to movement. But now, for over US$10,000, travel is possible via routes originally used for cocaine smuggling.

Yet none of this means Republicans won’t still deploy reductionist narratives to their advantage by stoking nativist sentiments to mobilize voters against Democrats.

The GOP has enlisted more than 100 far-right candidates stand for election in the fall. Many of them have ties to white supremacist groups or have endorsed racist replacement theory conspiracies that falsely claim that Western governments deliberately use immigration to diminish the white race.

In the background is Donald Trump, who has already raised more than US$100 million in political fundraising. A spokesperson has noted the money will be used to allow the former president and his loyalists to “collapse mid-term and continue until 2024”.

The American right has organized strongly at the state level to take control of electoral machinery in order to subvert future electoral losses. But tapping into the anger over culture war flashpoints could help Republican candidates secure legitimate election victories.

When it comes to immigration, perceptions always outweigh reality. For Democrats, such misperceptions could cause them to lose control of Congress.

Kyle Hiebert is a Winnipeg-based researcher and analyst and former associate editor of the Africa Conflict Monitor.

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